“Florida went farther than some other slave states in the creativity of its repression: slaves could not gather to pray. They couldn’t leave their plantation, even for a walk, without written permission by their owner. If they were accused of wrongdoing, ‘their hands were burned with a heated iron, their ears nailed to posts,’ or their backs stripped raw with seventy-five lashes from a buckskin whip. The few free blacks in the state had to register with the nearest probate court or could automatically be enslaved by any white person who stepped forward to claim possession.”
Who was Florida’s first black minister, and where was Florida’s first regularly organized black church? It’s not the typical question answered in most history books. But, as good fortune would have it, the answer can be found right here.
James Page was a slave born in 1808 in Virginia. Page’s owner, Col. John Parkhill, brought Page and his wife to Leon County, Florida thirty years later. It was Parkhill who encouraged Page to take up the ministry. In 1851, Page was ordained by a white Baptist minister in Newport and became a Florida first. After the ordination, Parkhill gave Page the land to build the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, the state’s first regularly organized black church.
In 1867, Page would become a Leon County delegate to the Republican Convention. A year later, he served as legislative chaplain of the Florida Senate. He also served on the Leon County Commission and was later appointed as the county’s Justice of the Peace.
On November 11, 1946, Corrine Brown was born in Jacksonville. She would go on to become an elected official representing that part of the state, first in the Florida Legislature and then more than two decades in the U.S. Congress.
Brown graduated from Florida A&M University, and she received a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Florida. In the Congress, she served as an advocate for improved veterans programs and several public works in projects, including the expansion and dredging of the Port of Jacksonville.
Throughout Brown’s long political career, both in the state legislature and in Washington, she has been recognized as a fighter on behalf of her constituents and colleagues. She aptly fit the mantra that marked her many campaigns: “Corrine Delivers.” As a lawmaker, she brought hundreds of millions of federal dollars back to communities throughout her district and the state of Florida.
Brown’s tenure as a public servant though was laced with controversy. She was recently indicted as she sought her 13th term in office. She lost her primary to former state Sen. Al Lawson, a popular politician from the western edge of her newly redrawn congressional district.
Sources: Office of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
‘By the 1780s, Florida was home to Spanish speaking Africans, fugitive slaves from the colonies and indigenous and migrated Indian tribes, including the Seminoles. Fugitive slaves established maroon settlements in Spanish Florida with names like ‘Disturb Me If You Dare’ and ‘Try Me If You Be Men.’ By 1819, when the United States purchased Florida from Spain, General Andrew Jackson commented that the transaction had finally closed ‘this perpetual harbor for our slaves’.”
Source:Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms by Nicholas Johnson, 2014, Prometheus Books p. 128
“Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.” — A. Phillip Randolph during his 1963 March on Washington speech
On November 8, 1920, Esther Elizabeth Rolle was born in Pompano Beach, Fla. She was the tenth of 18 children.
Rolle grew up in Broward County and graduated from Blanche Ely High School. She went on to attend Spelman College before moving to New York and an eventual career as an actress.
Rolle is best remembered for her role as Florida Evans in the 1970 sitcoms, Maude and Good Times. But, Rolle was also an accomplished dancer and stage actor. She often appeared in plays produced by Robert Hooks and the Negro Ensemble Company. Her most prominent role was in the 1973 Melvin Van Peebles play, Don’t Play Us Cheap.
Rolle also landed roles in several made for television movies and films, including Driving Miss Daisy, My Fellow Americans, Rosewood and I Know Why the Cagsed Bird Sing. She won an Emmy for her work in Summer of My German Soldier.
Although best known for her role as a maid on Good Times, Rolle was no shrinking violent on the set. The James Evans character, played by John Amos, came after Rolle fought for a husband and father figure to be included in the show. She also wanted meatier and more relevant scripts and became critical of the show’s direction with the success of Jimmie Walker’s character.
After a standoff with producer Norman Lear, Rolle left Good Times at the end of her contract, although the show continued for a fifth season without her.
On November 7, 1915, Mary Athalie Wilkerson was born in Key West. Her family would later move to Miami, where she met and married Oscar Lee Range. The couple would start a family and a thriving funeral business. Mary Athalie Range would go on to become an icon in Miami, the state of Florida and beyond.
Range became Miami’s first black city commissioner — first by appointment and then an election and re-election. She fought to improve city services for Miami’s black community. Garbage pickup was a prime example.
Miami’s black communities would have their garbage picked up once every three weeks, while white areas received pickups twice a week. When the commission twice failed to approve Range’s ordinance to equalize the pickups, she urged her black constituents to bring their garbage to city commission meetings. The commissioners got the message and approved Range’s garbage pickup proposal.
In 1971, Range became the first woman appointed to head a state agency when Gov. Rueben Askew appointed her Secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs. Her early support of Jimmy Carter’s bid to become president resulted in Range being appointed to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, the governing board of AMTRAK.
Ironically, Range would find herself back in a familiar position, thanks to a political appointment to fill a vacancy on the Miami City Commission.
Photo Credit: State of Florida Archives, Florida Memory
“As racists rewrote Florida’s history as well as its constitution, it was forgotten how well black people in Florida had taken to electoral politics. According to Carter Brown’s study, Florida’s Black Public Officials 1867-1924, nearly 1,000 black people, the great majority of them Florida-born ex-slaves, held office following the Civil War. By profession, they ranged from farmers and laborers to craftsmen and preachers.”
On November 5, 1968, Joe Lang Kershaw made political history. He became the first black since Reconstruction to win a seat in the Florida Legislature.
Kershaw was born in Miami, graduated from Florida A&M University and spent a good part of the Great Depression and World War II mentoring black youth and officiating football games in the Miami area.
A civics teacher, Kershaw served 14 years as a state lawmaker, representing a Miami-Dade County district as a Democrat. His biggest accomplishment? He passed legislation that repealed a state tax on cane pole fishing, a popular form of entertainment and food source among many Floridians.
Photo Credit: State of Florida Archives, Florida Memory
On November 5, 1943, Frederica Wilson was born in Miami. She is 74 and currently represents Florida’s 24th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Known throughout her district as “The Hat Lady” because of the large and colorful hats she typically wears to honor her late grandmother. Ms. Wilson began her career as an educator, having once worked as a principal Skyway Elementary School.
Her political career began on the Miami Date County School board, followed by a stint in the Florida House of Representatives and then the Florida Senate. Ms. Wilson ran for Congress in 2010, when U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek D-FL, stepped down to run for an open U.S. Senate seat.
Besides her political career, Rep. Wilson takes great pride in the 5,000 Role Models of Excellence, a mentoring program she founded when she was on the county school board.
Photo Credit: Official U.S. House of Representatives Portrait